What Place Does Theater Have in the Creative Process of Design?

By Traci Lepore

Published: September 22, 2008

“As designers, to be truly innovative, we must open ourselves up to new ideas, surround ourselves with diverse inputs, and be willing to embark on a new journey.”

In a world where a focus on designing innovative, compelling, valuable, and engaging user experiences is becoming increasingly important, designers of user experiences endeavor to enhance and improve the way they work and achieve the desired outcome. As designers, to be truly innovative, we must open ourselves up to new ideas, surround ourselves with diverse inputs, and be willing to embark on a new journey—regardless of whether we know the destination. Actors and others who create theater would tell you this kind of mindset is part their everyday work culture. So, what can we learn from the way actors and other theatrical artists work that will help us be more innovative, too?

Is Theater Really Magic?

Theatrical tradition dates back far in our history. Theater has long given people—artists in particular—a means of interacting with their communities. There are many reasons why this is true, but some important ones are that theater provides

  • an engaging and insightful means of communication
  • a successful and proven method of building shared understanding
  • the fastest way to develop an ensemble mentality that motivates and supports each member

Why is this so? Despite the prevalence of the myth that theater—or improv—is magical and only for theatrical people, the reality is that theatrical tradition is built upon sound principles and exercises that promote

  • creativity
  • spontaneity
  • trust
  • collaboration
  • skillful improvisation

And anyone can learn to harness those capabilities—not just actors. Skilled innovators in theater have never belonged to a secret society. From people like Viola Spolin, who developed many of the standard exercises for actor training from games children play, or Augusto Boal, who works specifically with non-actors to inspire social reform, we can learn many lessons that can help us to be more innovative

“What can we take from theater training that would truly help us learn how to be more innovative in our own everyday lives?”

So, now that we know it’s not really magic, what can we take from theater training that would truly help us learn how to be more innovative in our own everyday lives? When I ask myself that question, I’m reminded of recently reading about some Google design principles. I was researching some ideas about innovation and came across a Google blog entry that talked about how they achieve innovation. Not surprisingly, I found many of their principles aligned with some of the main principles of theater. The key points that struck me in particular as drivers of innovative ideas were the following:

  • focusing on people—a key principle behind user-centered design
  • daring to innovate—for a big payoff, we need to take a big risk
  • engendering trust—being worthy of people’s trust
  • adding a human touch—empathy does much to drive good design

If we expand on these notions by adding some of the driving ideas behind successful theater—increasing our awareness of what’s going on around us, learning how to accept contributions, being sensitive to non-verbal communication, accepting failure as a necessary part of learning, and appreciating the power of storytelling—we can start to think about how designers, not just actors, can use the same skills to achieve successful designs.

Fostering Innovation Through Theatrical Play

When it comes to learning how to be more creative, there a few key areas on which we can concentrate in our personal development:

  • becoming a good and active listener
  • increasing our level of awareness and sensitivity to stimuli
  • being more spontaneous and not censoring our impulses
“It is the recombination and transference of analogous thoughts and concepts that drives innovation.”

There is no such thing as becoming creative or innovative on the spot, out of the clear blue. Most people would be stumped if you asked them to do this—even actors. Ingenious creativity and innovation require that we draw upon a broad base of stimuli and past experience—giving us enough fodder from which we can pull creative ideas at any moment in time. It is the recombination and transference of analogous thoughts and concepts that drives innovation.

As I’ve already stated, listening and awareness require us to broaden the spectrum of the input we receive. By engaging in some simple activities that are typical pursuits of actors and creative writers, you can start to develop these qualities without help from anyone else. Try some simple things like these:

  • Take up people-watching, then make up stories for yourself about the people, basing them on actual observed behavior—in essence, daydreaming.
  • Listen to other’s conversations in a crowd—though you should be careful about eavesdropping too much or sharing what you’ve heard.
  • Look at your surroundings, then close your eyes and test yourself on the details of the room around you.

The more sensory input you’ve had, the more you’ll have to work with when it comes time to have ideas or be creative.

“Learning to be truly aware of the people on your team…can help you be better at improvisation, because you can draw upon mutual understanding and a shared background of experiences.”

As another benefit, learning to be truly aware of the people on your team and attention to detail can help you be better at improvisation, because you can draw upon mutual understanding and a shared background of experiences. That kind of understanding and shared experiences are why good improv seems like it’s planned—even though it most definitely is not. It is awareness and attention to detail that let the members of an acting or improv troupe achieve such a smooth and wonderful flow of creativity. Notice the patterns of behavior among the members of your team, and you’ll quickly learn to recognize what may be coming next.

Not censoring yourself is a key component of being creative. Sadly, though, we are conditioned early on to censor ourselves. We avoid sounding stupid, making points that are irrelevant, or whatever else we may fear being or doing in front of others. This is the most difficult stumbling bock for most people when it comes to being creative. But being creative means putting it all out there—whether good or bad. One thing that can help us do this is to explicitly separate ideation from evaluation. Wait until after a brainstorming session—or any other creative activity—to evaluate the good and bad your team has generated. Hold yourself to the rules of brainstorming. Don’t censor anyone’s ideas.

“Not censoring yourself is a key component of being creative.”

Playing games like the one where you, as a group, tell a story, with each person adding one word at a time, will also help force you all to go with your impulses.

Not censoring others is key to making teamwork creative. This concept, in theater terms, is known as accepting offers. There is a theater phrase all actors live by: Yes and…. What this means is: No matter what creative contribution someone throws at you, you should respond with an attitude of acceptance and never allow a but. This is what drives creativity forward. The no, or but, is what theatrical people call blocking, a term to which I’m sure you can relate. Nothing can stop a brainstorm in a quicker fashion than if you don’t have the Yes, and… attitude. Try playing a game in which you perform a task such as planning a company party and you can respond only by accepting people’s offers. See how far you can get when you don’t block any of the ideas you come up with as a team.

Adding the Human Touch Drives Targeted Innovation

“Understanding and putting yourself in the user’s shoes … will go far in helping you develop a design that will truly meet the needs of your target audience.”

Many of the Google principles I mentioned earlier focused on the human aspects of design: people, trust, and empathy. The success of Google products is a testament to the strong need for user-centered design—for a focus on the human aspects of design. Theatrical endeavors would surely fail without the same attention to detail. Understanding and putting yourself in the user’s shoes—whether through building and using personas or doing usability testing—will go far in helping you develop a design that will truly meet the needs of your target audience. Getting to the heart of the matter will drive compelling and valuable designs that users will flock to. If you build it to meet their needs and intents, they will come, be happy, and return again and again.

Next time you are building personas or developing use cases or brainstorming, take things a step further and role-play the users’ characteristics and actual activities yourself. Surround yourself with the actual traits and activities of your users. Build a collage from magazine images that represent the things they would use and enjoy. Find props that might be fitting. You might just be surprised by the insights this could give you into the users’ mindset and intents. Build personas from actual observed data, and you will get even more insight into the minds of your users. When doing usability testing, forget the old, standard ideas like using test scripts and, instead, have users role-play their actual work, using a prototype, and you will be amazed at the feedback you will get about what is or is not working in your design and how to make it serve their needs.

Putting Theater into Practice for Design

“Collaboration, when infused with trust, drives bigger and better ideas.”

I recently experienced an exercise called paired drawing for the first time. I was considering putting together a mini-workshop devoted to team building and looking through some books for new exercises. This particular exercise involves two people, one piece of paper, and one pen. Each pair of people creates a face, starting with two dots for eyes, then alternately drawing one line each. A very simple exercise, isn’t it?

I could easily see how it related to team building, but was confused about how it actually built creativity, as the description of the exercise in the book had mentioned. And the suggested debrief questions confused me even more. One in particular, about how the drawings would have been different if done individually, just didn’t seem to make sense. I simply couldn’t fathom how you could know the answer. So, I had to try out this exercise myself to see whether it all made sense. I grabbed a colleague, and we were off. A mere five minutes later, it had become completely clear to me how this seemingly simple exercise could promote creativity and innovative results.

When I asked my colleague her impressions of the exercise, the first thing she said was that she was afraid, before we started, that she wouldn’t be able to get over thinking about it too much and trying to plan, before we started, what the outcome would be. These are just the kinds of things that are always sure to block creativity. My colleague had started out by coming up with preconceived notions of what the face would be. But once we began the exercise, she was amazed by how the nature of the exercise, with each of us alternating and not knowing what the other would do, completely got her to stop thinking and just go with her impulses.

Score one for theatrical exercises driving innovation! First, don’t think about it too much, and don’t censor your impulses! For me, the major take-away was that I clearly understood the point of the debrief question that had previously baffled me. Looking at the end result, it was crystal clear that, on our own, we never would have drawn something so interesting and wild and innovative. Score another one for theatrical exercises driving innovation! Collaboration, when infused with trust, drives bigger and better ideas. Just think about how this can translate to your typical brainstorming and idea-generation sessions.

While this is just one small, true-life experience showing how theater can help transform us into more innovative individuals and teams, it clearly demonstrates the ease with which we can incorporate such simple, little exercises into our daily activities. The best thing we can do for ourselves as designers today is to expand our horizons. By infusing theater exercises and techniques into our existing processes, we can help drive our teams toward the engaging, compelling, and innovative designs that are paramount today. In this column, I have touched on just of few of the ways theater can help drive innovation, but hopefully, have sparked some new and innovative ideas you can keep in mind and use in your work.

5 Comments

Thanks for this article! I’m thrilled that there is someone out there bringing improv and UX design together! I’ve been playing improv for 11 years now and was given the chance to pass on some of my experience to my colleagues in a workshop last year. It showed that improvisational theater has a lot to offer for designers as well as usability engineers.

I have an entirely different take on this. I have a theater degree and am an interaction designer.

I am not convinced that role-playing is much better than imagining yourself undertaking a task within a product. I might have played Nora in A Doll’s House, and it might have been different from what I’m like, but it was still my Nora. It’s necessarily unique to me. If I’m role-playing when using a product, and I imagine what it’s like to, for example, distrust computers and feel uncomfortable with them, that’s probably better than me ignoring those aspects of a—for example—typical user of this particular product, but it’s not a sea-change.

However, I do agree with you that there are important elements in common with theater. Namely, the balance of right- and left-brained activities. Occasionally, you’ll see an actor be pretty successful in college—extraordinarily emotional and honest—but they don’t make it very far outside of school. They’ve got the right-brained stuff going, but they are ignoring the left-brained stuff. There are facts about the character that they need to fit within: what the character says and does, what other people say and do in relation to the character, and research into real people in similar circumstances. Rarely do you see actors who focus too much on the hard data they can depend on as they build out the rest of the character. Without that left-brained stuff, though, the actor comes off as deep, but out of touch with the rest of the show. They don’t quite fit in with the other characters or the plot.

Similarly, designers often come from a right-brained place, starting as artists. And, of course, that stuff is important: inspiration, innovation, emotion. But they must also apply hard facts to their work: Who will use this? Why? What are those people really like? And also the discipline of well-established design practices: What areas of the screen draw the eye? What line-length is acceptable before things become difficult to read.

I think this article is fascinating, and some of the ideas well worth pursuing, as long as it’s not at the cost of doing real user research in the form of interviews, usability—even test scripts can ask users to act out a real situation with a prototype—and regularly keeping a keen eye on what analytics are telling you.

Hi Sylvia,

Yes, improvisational theatre can bring a lot to other creative processes. Especially when you are looking to get people out of the same old mindset and truly tap into some creativity, it can really open people up in new ways. It definitely is always nice to hear of others engaging in this kind of work. I especially love to hear that companies are becoming open to the ideas of doing workshops centered around these ideas. There is far too little play in the corporate world right now, and it’s having a bad effect on our ability to stimulate creativity and learn by making mistakes!

Hi Audrey,

Yes, I understand what you mean when you talk about role-playing being unique to your own experience, but whether you take the time to imagine the users or yourself with some trait or characteristic, it can still be helpful and stimulate deeper thinking on the more non-tacit side of the experience. I totally agree you can’t forget the rest of the parts of a user-centered process, but hope to advocate taking them to a deeper level by adding in some new things that would help get an even more user-centered or empathetic design.

The point you make about being too left-brained or right-brained is quite an interesting and relevant one. I have been playing with a few exercises recently that target rational and emotional responses at the same time, and it’s quite eye-opening to see how much more difficult it can be to focus on both together. You can completely lose details for the one that’s not in focus. It is something that can get easier with work though, as are most theatrical skills, which I’m sure you know from your own experiences with theater.

Hi Audrey,

There is a big difference between imagining yourself using a product and improvising or rehearsing that interaction. Not roleplaying. That’s another, much weaker tool. Imagination uses only one head.

If, in an improv or rehearsal, you are truly listening to the other player in the scene, responding to their ideas and building on them, it is impossible to follow a preconceived agenda. It’s like the face drawing game that Traci mentions—you will never draw the face or faces you imagined. Working with the other person will keep surprising you, forcing you down unimagined paths.

Just last week, I worked with a group of designers who thought they had brainstormed every aspect of their design. They had made beautiful storyboards and thought they had everything covered.

Using our theatrical rehearsal model, we looked at just the first two panels of their storyboard. We made it real, haptic, human, and emotional. We ran it, stopped it, laughed, talked, changed, iterated. Within twenty minutes, they had discovered more than thirty bugs, problems, opportunities, variations, and potential markets. We ran out of space on the whiteboard. And that was just from the first two panels of an “advanced” design storyboard.

That’s why I think there are big differences between theatrical methods and good, old-fashioned introspection—more ideas and better.

All the best, Adam Lawrence

Theatrical methods in service innovation

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